Beneath the Sugar Sky

Finally! A book I was able to pick up during the pandemic and read almost straight through. Beneath the Sugar Sky is a short, easy, interesting, creative novella that I read in under 24 hours. I have admittedly read only the first book in the series, not the second, before starting this third book in the series. Normally I try to read series in order, but if ever there was a series where reading books out of order seems appropriate, it’s Wayward Children, and especially Beneath the Sugar Sky. Time and order itself are out of order in this story, and much of the story is spent in the nonsense world of Confection, where reading books out of order would surely have been approved of. Which is a relief, because the libraries closed down from the pandemic before all my holds could come in, and I was left with books 1, 3, and 5.

I don’t think that I enjoyed Beneath the Sugar Sky as much as I enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway. It was still good, and kept me reading, but I didn’t connect to the story as much. Perhaps it’s due to the changes in protagonists from the first book. I did enjoy getting to spend more time with and get to know Kade. He’s interesting, and got to show off some previously unmentioned skills. I liked Cora, for what I knew of her, but I felt like most of her character development was just talking about how being fat didn’t define her. Which I completely support. I just want more to a character than what DOESN’T define them. Cora was strong and was more than her weight, and she had pretty blue and green hair. Aside from that, there wasn’t much to her. Perhaps this is owing to the constraints of the length of the novella, because Christopher mostly talked about the Skeleton Girl and worried about not losing his bone flute. He did seem to get a little more development than Cora, but not much. And other supporting characters got even less development.

There was more diversity represented in this book than in the first book in the series, and I appreciated that. In addition to trans boy Kade and Latinx Christopher, there was also body positive Cora and handicapped Russian adoptee Nadya, as well as Asian Sumi’s daughter Rini and a new character introduced towards the end of the story who is a brown Muslim hijab wearing girl. If it seems like I’m defining the characters by those identities, perhaps it’s because that’s how they were presented. Representation matters, though, even when it’s not a huge part of the story.

I did enjoy the plot this time. A group quest wandering through fantasy worlds was just what I wanted to read right now, and I found each place the teens visited to be fascinating. I found Confection, Sumi’s world, to be especially charming, sort of like the game Candyland crossed with Alice in Wonderland. (Although, as a side note, reading about the gobs and gobs of sugar in that world, while newly on a sugar restricted diet, was quite a temptation. So many reminders of delicious sweets!)

Overall this was just a fast fun relaxing read that leaves me wanting more of this series. I look forward to continuing to meet new Wayward children, and to learning more about the ones we’ve already met, as well as learning more about the worlds they’ve visited. I recommend this as good escapist entertainment, whether read in order or out of order.

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Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway is another book that deserves a better review than I can give it right now. I read it about two months ago, but didn’t get to review it right away, despite enjoying it so much that I immediately put holds on the rest of the series through our local library. Then the pandemic hit the US, and most things shut down, including my brain, especially anything that involved creativity and communication, and this poor book has just sat here since then waiting for a long overdo review. Obviously at this point I don’t remember details well enough to truly do it justice. But let me do what I can.

This book came to me highly recommended by fellow library staff. I have always loved those fantasy books where kids stepped through portals into other, fantastical worlds, so a book reflecting on that from an adult perspective, especially on what it means to come home from that world and try to live a normal human life again, intrigued me. A book written by an LGBTQ author also gave me hope that there would be at least some representation of diversity. And friends assured me that the book was great.

And they weren’t wrong. Every Heart a Doorway isn’t a very long book, but it grabbed my attention and immersed me in its world right away. While I didn’t necessarily love any of the characters, and I wished there was more diversity represented, I found each character to be distinct and fascinating. I had to keep reading, because I wanted to know more about their worlds and about what would happen to each character.

I didn’t expect the story to turn into a murder mystery, but I was mostly fine with that (just sad when some characters left the story, because I wanted to know more about them than I already did). The mystery kept me turning the pages. I won’t lie and say I was surprised by the resolution. I’d been pretty confident I knew who the culprit was, and I was not wrong. I also didn’t expect the sort of ending this story had–it wasn’t my usual preference, not a normal HEA, but it fit well with the rest of the story, and left the story open for more adventures in the future, while still allowing it to stand alone just fine.

As I mentioned, I wished there was more diversity. Yes, there’s an Asian character. I appreciated her nonsensical zaniness, but understand how an Asian author I respect could also express disappointment that the sole Asian representation fell back on tropes of zany mystics. Beyond that, there was a trans character and an asexual character, both of whom were represented thoughtfully. Overall it wasn’t bad. I just wished there’d been even more representation.

In general, I really enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway and have been looking forward to reading more books in the series. I found the alternate worlds that McGuire crafted to be fascinating, although often also horrifying, and I look forward to exploring those worlds in greater depths in future books. I have several books in the series here waiting for me to pick them up, and I hope that they can take me away, not only from the human world within the books, but also from the dumpster fire pandemic world of Earth 2020. I recommend this as an intriguing book that offers both escapism and introspection, and is a fun, fast read with several more books in the series. I hope you enjoy it too. 

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To Have and To Hoax

To Have and to Hoax was a big disappointment for me. While I don’t normally read “Regency” romance novels, because I tend to find them distracting with historically inaccuracy in tone as well as facts, a friend had recommended this title to me. The cover is cute, and the premise sounded fun. So when the publisher approved an ARC for me from NetGalley, I was excited.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed. While To Have and To Hoax had a clever premise, and started off well for the first few chapters, it didn’t live up to that premise. It is full of toxic relationship behavior between the two protagonists, and lots of sexist, gender-binary-obsessed language. Men are constantly referred to derogatorily. Normally, I’m all about punching up, especially if it’s done cleverly, but the constant, “ugh, boys are stupid. amiright?” from Violet and her friend Diana was exhausting and annoying. One wondered why they bothered being in relationships at all if they hated men so much. The male characters were similarly bewildered by women, and blamed everything on their gender, although not in such nasty language. Need examples? In the prologue, Violet thinks about a specific behavior she ascribes to males, and says “really, it was enough to cast in grave doubt the intellect of the entire sex.” Later, her husband’s friend Jeremy says “I am a man.”: “as though that explained everything, and given Violet’s experience with men, she supposed it probably did.” Violet is also given to thinking very violent thoughts towards men, constantly pondering how she’d like to shake or hit or stab or otherwise injure men who frustrate her. It’s an oddly hostile tone for a m/f “romance” novel, even a lovers to enemies to lovers husband/ wife romance like this.

Honestly, in general the writing is shoddy. There is so much telling instead of showing. Any actual sexual tension is replaced by repetitive reminders of just how attractive/ beautiful/ sexually alluring Violet and James find each other. Constantly. At great length. The author repeats a number of words and phrases as well. The worst offender was the use of the word “said” as an adjective meaning aforementioned. This is used at least half a dozen times that I noticed. Towards the end of the book, the author actually used the word “aforementioned” instead, and I cheered a little. Then I stopped and wondered WHY she had to find other ways to say that concept? I don’t notice an overabundance of that word in other novels. Why can’t Waters write effectively enough to not constantly use that phrasing? She also uses the phrase, “and yet here she/ we was/ are” at least three times. Violet also makes a habit of giving snorts of disdain throughout the story. The repetitions kept catching my eyes and distracting me.

The shenanigans in which the main characters engage in this story felt over the top and unrealistic, as well as off-puttingly dishonest and nasty. It’s not just a matter of faking illness, as mentioned in the description. (although seriously, who would believe a perfectly healthy energetic young woman without a bad cough had consumption suddenly? or would have allowed her to continue to go out into society if they did?) James and Violet also try to hurt each other by flirting with other members of society inappropriately. They put the reputations of other friends and acquaintances, as well as their own, at risk. There’s sex in a not private room of someone else’s house that was hosting a crowded ball they were attending. Just so many jarring instances that had me wondering what the heck the author was thinking and how much did she really know about the era in which this book is set.

The only things that felt realistic were unpleasant things. Waters certainly captured well the entitled attitude of the the lady of the house towards her servants, and it was really obnoxious. Mostly it’s Violet creating extra work for her servants through her ridiculous attempts to hoax James. Chasing servants up and downs stairs all day long with stacks of books from the library, for instance, after which Violet feels that “she had risked death by boredom today, which was brave in its own way.” Or admitting that the servants probably had better things to do with their time, but so did she (by which Violet meant her consumption hoax), and she required their assistance with it. There’s also a moment or two where even James chortles at the expense of his servants, at for instance how efficient and professional his butler was. Realistic? Perhaps. Odious? Definitely.

I was annoyed at 40%, and disgusted by 60%. I finished the book by heavy skimming instead of reading. Why did I even keep reading this book, when it annoyed me so much? Well, for one, I hate to leave ARCs unread. I appreciate that the publishers shared them with me even when I don’t enjoy the specific title I’m reading. Also, I had spent the time to read half of the book already. I hated to waste time by not finishing a book that could count towards my reading challenge and reading totals for the year. And finally, I was actually interested in two couples of side characters, West and Sophie, and Violet’s unmarried friend and the aristocrat who was running a theater, both of whom’s names I’ve already forgotten. The book seemed to be running out of steam about halfway through, so I was sure that we’d get some time with those other couples. But no, they got short shrift so that Violet and James’ actions and thoughts from the first half of the book could be repeated ad nauseum, with a bunch of psychobabble about James and Violet’s issues that also sounded inappropriate for its time. That kind of introspection may be something we take for granted now, but I am skeptical that prior to the development of the field of psychology, it was something normal people had a lot of time and language for analyzing. Even if it was appropriate, it was long and drawn out and tedious. This book could have been at least 40% shorter and would probably have been much more enjoyable if it was.

I was intrigued enough by the secondary couples/ characters set up in this book that I was considering seeking out the sequel to this book when it’s published. But as I read further in To Have and To Hoax, it became apparent that the next book would be about Diana, one of my least favorite characters, and Jeremy, and that the dynamic being established between them was going to be as antagonistic as the primary relationship in this book, with even less apparent reason for the antagonism. No thanks. I had enough of that already.

I realize reading this book during a pandemic, when I am struggling to concentrate on books, might be doing the book a disservice. However, I don’t think, given the quality of writing, that I would have enjoyed this book under any circumstances. If you enjoy humorous “historical” romances and aren’t too worried about historical accuracy and don’t mind silliness and toxic behavior, perhaps you’ll enjoy this book more than I did. As it is, I can’t recommend it. There are better authors and better stories out there in this genre.

Thanks anyway to #NetGalley and Atria Books for sharing an advanced copy of #ToHaveandToHoax . This is my honest opinion.

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The Worst Best Man

Here’s the thing. The Worst Best Man probably deserves a better review than I am going to be able to write for it. The fact of the matter is that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and I find myself struggling to do most of the things I love. For my first month at home after my work closed, I couldn’t even focus enough to read. I just worked around my home and garden and played casual games on my phone.

Finally, after about a month of no real reading, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I started reading again, slowly. However, even after I was able to pick back up the reading, I found myself struggling to write. By now I have a backlog of reviews to write, for books I finished before and during the pandemic, but not a lot of words to say about them.

But what does this have to do with The Worst Best Man? Well, it had the misfortune of being a book I started but hadn’t yet finished prior to the entire world seeming to shut down due to the pandemic. So it sat unfinished for over a month before I finally picked it up and finished it. So I can’t be entirely sure if it was the book or the extenuating circumstances that lost me for so long. The truth is the book didn’t seem to be blowing me away prior to the world going mad, which is why I hadn’t finished it by the time everything changed. But maybe that was pandemic related too.

I was excited to hear in mid March, as I was about to start this book, that a colleague with whom I share some tastes in books had read it already. But when I asked her what she thought of it, she said it was just OK. She said that the main character was too prickly, and that her Brazilian heritage, while interested, got fed to the reader pretty heavily throughout the book. I assumed this was just one of the times where our tastes different somewhat and set to reading anyway.

Then I discovered that she and I pretty much agreed about the story. Max, the hero, is a nice enough character. He’s got some baggage of his own, but is mostly a well-intentioned sweet guy burning a candle for the woman his brother left at the altar. Lina, on the other hand, is really difficult to like. Not difficult to understand, but difficult to relate to. While it’s explained thoroughly why she developed the cold hard persona/ exterior over her very emotional true inner personality, while we understand that as a Latinx woman of color she doesn’t have the privilege of expressing her emotions too strongly around others without being perceived as angry or irrational or other pejoratives, this fact doesn’t make her easier to connect with. It just makes her chilly and prickly and difficult to care about.

And yes, my colleague was correct. The information about Lina’s Brazilian heritage really is piled on pretty thickly. On one hand, I love learning about other cultures: the music, the food, the language, the traditions, the relationships. But on the other hand, a romance novel shouldn’t feel like an introductory educational text or an after-school special. Whether Lina and her family are speaking in English heavily sprinkled with Portuguese or Lina is explaining Brazilian cuisine to Max or any of the other examples of telling more than showing, they together ended up being too much, feeling more didactic than interesting. (It did make me hungry to try Brazilian food, though.) Which is sad, because I had been excited to read a book about a Brazilian Latina heroine.

I have a few other minor quibbles with the book as well. Some is just personal preference–I don’t prefer first person romance novels, especially from the perspective of both love interests. This was especially important when reading The Worst Best Man, because I don’t think Max’s POV sounds very much like it was written by a straight white male. There’s a scene where his handsome best friend is introduced, and Max describes him in detail, contrasting his friend’s appearance with his own. I think that contrasting description would have made much more sense coming from Lina or another exterior perspective. it just felt weird and inauthentic being presented as Max’s perspective, the way it was written. The entire introduction of his friend, whose name I cannot remember, was pretty heavy handed and seemed obvious that Sosa was setting him up to be the hero in her next novel.

And finally, a very tiny quibble, but there’s a scene where Lina and Max are at a country B&B overnight on Easter weekend, and they’re awoken early Sunday morning by ‘heavy machinery’, and all I could think, as someone who grew up in the country, on a working farm, WHAT FARMER USES HEAVY MACHINERY EARLY ON ANY SUNDAY MORNING, MUCH LESS EASTER MORNING?? I guess it’s something that you might not think about without prior knowledge of farm life, but it really pulled me out of the story.

There are good things about the story too, though. Although I never really connected to Lina, I didn’t hate her either. I liked her strong, close relationship with her family and friends, especially her assistant Jaslene, and their grounded-ness in their own culture. As I mentioned, I liked Max, and thought he was sweet. I could see how their opposite personalities might attract each other. The sex scenes between the two of them were thoughtful as well as steamy, sort of realistically hot. I also appreciated that the main character was a working woman, a small businesswoman working on a thin profit margin who had relatable struggles like old broken down cars and rent that was too high for her budget.

I also really liked the setting–DC and the surrounding suburbs is relatively local for me, and I’ve definitely visited friends in some of the areas Sosa describes. It’s always fun to recognize real-life roads and neighborhoods in a book I’m reading. And yes, the rent really is pretty steep there, from what I’ve heard and read.

So the overall verdict for The Worst Best Man is that while it didn’t grab me and refuse to let me go, like I wanted it to, I didn’t hate it either. It was pleasant and interesting, if easy to put down, and I’m curious to see where Sosa goes with the next story, which I understand will be about Max’s best friend and Lina’s briefly mentioned cousin Solange. I would love if Jaslene got a story to herself too. Whatever the case, I’m willing to give the author more tries, hopefully not in the midst of a deadly pandemic, but in times more well-suited to focusing on a fun book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for what comes next.

Thank you to #NetGalley and Avon/ Harper Collins for letting me read an advanced copy of #TheWorstBestMan . Sorry it took me so long to finish. I still blame the pandemic.

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Thoughts on reading (or not) during a pandemic

I am aware that I have not posted in almost a month. I have had several books to review, but then the pandemic started to affect life here in the USA, and one of the things affected was apparently my motivation to read or write. I’ve heard from a lot of other readers in various online book groups that they are having the same problems, while others are still reading more voraciously than ever. We all cope with trauma, with fear and anxiety and illness and death and the unknown, in different ways. None of them are right or wrong. Some of them are just more frustrating than others. Apparently I ignore TV and books and writing, and just play with my pets and play silly games on my electronic devices all day.

The good news is that in the past week or so, I’ve started to get an itch to read again. Not quite there yet, but wanting to be there. And then about three days ago I finally was able to focus on more than a page or two of a book at a time. I’m now 35% of the way through an advanced copy of Allison Montclair’s second volume in her historical mystery series, and enjoying it very much. I look forward to sharing a review of it with you soon, and hopefully catching up on reviews for books I read in March.

I hope readers such as yourself are able to stay safe and healthy during this time of darkness and uncertainty. And I hope that books are able to comfort you as we continue to try to do the best we can in this situation we face. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations:

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’” (from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein)

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Witch is When it All Began

Witch is When it All Began is not a book to which I’d usually be drawn. I’m not a huge fan of cozy mysteries and am picky about paranormal stories. But one of my reading challenges for the year was a book that is part of a series with more than 20 books, and I had a really difficult time finding anything I’d want to read that fit this challenge. Then someone recommended this series, and the library had the first book, which sounded cute and inoffensive and was at least British, so I decided to give it a try.

Witch is When it All Began is fine. It’s cute and mildly humorous, full of quirky characters and zany situations, as Jill Gooder, PI and adopted daughter/ sister, finds out she’s a actually a witch by birth, and tries to cope with her new reality, and newly discovered family. She does all of this while also researching a potential serial killer in her job as a private investigator. Jill is extremely quirky, with a lot of seriously OCD tendencies, such as her inability to eat cookies that have been stored or even plated with other kinds of cookies, her revulsion at cookies being dunked in beverages, and her need to keep her home immaculately clean and orderly, down to cataloging her cherished Beanie collection. She’s also not adverse to lying, a lot, harmless little lies that those around her may believe or not. The lying is written for humorous effect, wherein Jill would be questioned about something she’d rather not answer honestly, so she’d blatantly lie and then confess in parenthesis to the reader that her answer was the opposite from the truth.

This book doesn’t really take much of anything seriously. The system of magic and the magical “sup” culture she discovers, as well as her extra zany magical family, seem internally consistent but not particularly taxing. And the relatively small amount of sleuthing Jill does is pretty lighthearted and not necessarily realistic either. She has a love/hate relationship with a local police detective named Jack, as well as with her one eyed rescue cat Winky and her madly knitting volunteer receptionist Mrs. V. Based on this book alone, despite Jill’s eventually solution to the question she’s trying to solve, it’s difficult to see how she’s making ends meet as a detective. Hopefully her magic gives her a boost in that department, or she’s going to need to move in with one of her families.

Family is actually the one thing this book seems to take seriously. As much as Jill may deplore her adoptive sister’s noisy, cluttered lifestyle and rambunctious kids, she is devoted to Kathy and her family, and becomes devoted to her new family once she gets to know them (except maybe her newly discovered granny. That is yet to be decided.). The goodnatured bickering among siblings feels familiar and comfortable, as well as humorous, and adds a touch of reality to an otherwise silly book.

Despite the silly tone, however, or perhaps because of it, Witch is When it All Began ended up being enjoyable. I’d consider reading more in the series in the future, should I find myself in need of something light and easy-to-read. I’m mildly curious to see how Jill’s magic abilities develop, how it affect her job, and if Jack ever finds out what it’s like to kiss Jill. If you enjoy cozies with a touch of magic and the paranormal, especially set in a distinctly British world, full of custard creams and tea, you may enjoy this story as well. 

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Double Six

I’m always on the lookout for books that expand my reading horizons. So while an erotic BDSM lesbian menage romance is not my normal type of book, the cover of Double Six was pretty and featured a woman of color, and the story sounded interesting, and I decided to request it from NetGalley. The publisher was kind enough to share a copy with me, and it even met some reading prompts for my 2020 reading challenges. Score!

And then I started reading, and I was so disappointed. I hadn’t realized from the description that this was book 5 in a series, so I had to do a little catching up to understand what was going on. I eventually understood enough to follow the story, but it wasn’t thanks to the awkward writing. From what I can gather, Elaine is part of a very rich found family/ BDSM house? I’m very confused by all this, but it didn’t play into the story too much. Except that a lot of time was wasted talking about the horses that the house owned, which Elaine loved, and which had nothing to do with the plot otherwise. Also, there were submissives to do all the work around the enormous property. And money for travelling whenever/ wherever the characters wanted seemed to be no problem, as was money for hiring mercenaries and fixers to protect characters from violence apparently related to drama that occurred in previous books. But for all the talk about how the house existed to serve clients, which is why they wanted to hire Petra, there was never any mention of that actually happening. Elaine was too busy having angst to do the work that they supposedly did. So how they maintained that wealth remained unclear.

There was just so much telling instead of showing. So. much. awkward. exposition. in. Elaine’s. head. Not only did we have to listen to her think everything through (especially so much emotional angst. so much. over and over and over), but she did so in bizarrely short, staccato phrasing. For example, “Can I do it? Will my pride get in the way? What will Petra do? What does she want? Besides a dead woman. Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.” etc etc etc. Maybe this is how some of us think. But it is torturous to read, and since 95% of the story was the angsty romance, with Elaine back and forth in her own head, we got to hear that awful inner narrative. A lot.

There were also strange inconsistencies throughout the story. At first I was sure Robin was described as blonde. But then about halfway through the story, Elaine mentioned Robin’s dark hair. so I assumed I had misread, and just adjusted my mental image accordingly. THEN, right before the end of the book, another character describes Robin as highly desirable because she’s blonde. WHICH IS IT? Then there’s the sex scene where one minute Elaine is performing oral sex on Robin, yet somehow managed to “bury her head in the curve of Robin’s neck” at the same time. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but that doesn’t seem physically possible.

This applies to character development as well. I was VERY confused by the roles that these characters had among themselves. It seemed like the characters just did what the story demanded, whether or not it was consistent with what we’d been told about them thus far. Being angry at each other was apparently code for sexual tension, for example. (It wasn’t sexy. at least not for me. just angry and mean.) Also, the romance is among 3 women, 2 fierce dommes and a submissive, and it was very confusing to me how two women who both said very firmly that they weren’t switches ended up with one of them routinely submitting. It almost felt like a violation of consent, forcing someone to submit against spoken wishes. The submissive could be pretty bossy/ insistent too. It was all just so confusing. This story badly needs an editor.

Also, just be aware. This book is about 95% angsty romance, with some off-handed mentions of outside menace that I assumed were about as relevant as all the time spent talking about horses. And then, about 95% through the book, the story suddenly morphs into romantic suspense/ action, with Elaine killing people with her bare hands (in disturbing detail). After all that time being repetitive sex and romantic will they/ won’t, it suddenly became a different book for about 3% of the book, before subsiding into the ending. It was a surprising shift in tone, and one I feel like readers should know to expect.

What was good about Double Six? Well, the sex scenes, aside from the interminable minutes inside Elaine’s head, were smoking hot, and frankly were also pretty creative. I had not read about that use of clothes pins before, for instance. And also, I’ll give the author credit for including some diversity. Every significant character is female, and all seem to be LGBTQ. Petra is a beautiful Vietnamese domme. Early in the book it’s mentioned that she’s looking for a house where she’ll be accepted as a person, not just an exotic caricature or Asian stereotype. Later in the book, an African American character very pointedly tells Elaine “You know I’m not your magical negro, right?” and I cheered a little. I appreciate the author including these moments of diversity. It wasn’t enough to save the book, but it was still noteworthy.

So, bottom line, I did not enjoy Double Six at all. I found the writing bad enough to be distracting, and had to read the book in tiny snippets, before I’d get frustrated or annoyed again. I only finished it because it was an advanced readers copy and because it fulfilled reading challenges for me (This book was MOST DEFINITELY the binary opposite of an Amish romance I read earlier in the year, for example.). I won’t be picking up anything else by this author, and am a bit nervous to read the other two advanced copies granted to me by this publisher. If you want to expand your reading horizons, or fancy books like this, save yourself some disappointment and go find a different f/f/f BDSM erotic romance instead.

Thank you to #NetGalley and NineStar Press for letting me read this advanced copy of #DoubleSix. I’m sorry I can’t give it a better review. This is my honest opinion.

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